Here's the truly amusing thing about today’s ubiquitously seagoing word: though it was used for many an item aboard ship by seaman in the Great Age of Sail and before, it was never used to indicate the cute if unpredictable sea mammal. Sailors called those porpoises, and enjoyed eating them whenever possible. I know; now it seems almost like cannibalism but things were different then and if you were hungry at sea you might not turn down dolphin if it was all you could get. I wouldn't.
So what was referred to as a dolphin or dolphins aboard us? To start, larger ships with proud Captains often carried fancier brass cannon that were more for show than fighting, although they could do that as well. The brass was sometimes etched and filigreed, much like the royal armor of truly wealthy Renaissance rulers. The findings on the guns would also be carved beautifully, sometimes into recognizable shapes like plants or animals. A favorite was to form the handles by which the gun could be lifted (via rope and tackle) into dolphins. Thus these handles, which sat just above the trunnions on all guns except corronades, became known as dolphins whether or not they actually looked like the animal.
A dolphin is also a small craft from Ancient Rome used for fishing and ferrying. Pliny wrote a story of a young fisherman going back and forth on Lake Lucrine “in a dolphin”. This has come down to us erroneously as the boy riding to school each day literally astride a dolphin (which are, of course, unknown in any of Italy’s fresh water lakes as Pliny would have been aware).
A thick, purposefully set post on a quay or beach to which a boat may be tied is frequently called a dolphin. Another dolphin is a wooden spar with ring bolts at either end to which a boat can be tied for towing.
A dolphin at the mast is virtually the same as puddening (sometimes shortened to pudding and stemming from an ancient pronunciation of “putting”). This is a thick braid of cordage that is set around the fore and mainmasts prior to action. Attached beneath the trusses, its job is to prevent the yards from falling down if their rigging is shot away. A smaller but similar device placed under the lower yards is known as pudding and dolphin (which might also be dinner is you glance at yesterday’s post).
A dolphin-striker is the main support for the jib-boom at the bow, attached by means of ropes known as martingales.
Some other dolphin references: a French gold coin known as a “dauphine” (female dolphin) was in circulation from the 16th until the 19th century all over the world. The French, of course, referred to their heir apparent and his bride during that era as “dolphins”: the Dauphin and Dauphine. I have no clue why. Sailors sometimes called the dorado fish a “dolphin”, and enjoyed eating it too. In our own era, dolphins are sometimes used as therapy animals. Supermodel Tyra Banks lives in mortal fear of dolphins. I am not making that up.
But I have digressed beyond the point of return. Mind your dolphins, mates; I shall see ye one and all tomorrow.